It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was meant to be another event on a calendar that already included cultural dinners, guest speakers and social events. But for members of the Vietnamese Students’ Association and some Yale faculty, last week’s screening of “Living in Fear” moved us to question and understand a conflict that has been raging for the past few decades. How should one define the Vietnamese culture? How did culture play a role in the incident following the screening?
Before I launch into this discussion, allow me to apologize for knowingly allowing someone whom I didn’t know much about to preach something I was not very familiar with or well-versed in, as well as for unknowingly providing the opportunity for contention between a film director whose production was partly funded by the Vietnamese government and people who saw communists as responsible for all of the refugees’ suffering from the past and for the suffering of the majority of the population of Vietnam in the present. Forgive me for trusting that any event labeled as “cultural” would automatically mean a fair and balanced opportunity to educate myself and others about a culture and heritage that I so desperately want to understand.
“Culture” is indeed a vague word, one that needs the limits of time and space in order to make any good representation of it. To generalize all of “Vietnamese” culture into one overarching definition would be to ignore the differences among the Vietnamese who fled the country after the war and those who stayed or were left behind; the differences between second-generation Vietnamese Americans and their parents; the differences between those who refuse to go back to a country still ruled by communists and those who go back regularly as tourists, students or businessmen. Needless to say, people’s perceptions of the culture they belong to vary according to their personal experience, knowledge and preconceptions.
So who were the major players, the “cultures” represented in last week’s incident? Enter stage left, the Vietnamese citizens, as played by the director of the film. The majority of the Vietnamese living in Vietnam are too young to remember the war when it happened, but now enjoy the quasi-success of economic investment from foreign companies and the “freedom” of information on their censored Internet connections. Their major focus, as evidenced by this exported film shown widely in American universities, is to depict the happier aspects of life in Vietnam after the war and its positive impact on the citizens who stayed behind.
On the opposite end are the Vietnamese expatriates (who mostly describe themselves as Vietnamese in exile), portrayed by the protesters. These people, many of whom are in the same generation as my parents, fled the country to escape the threat of an oppressive regime and to seek a future for their families. For those who survived through the progression of “boat person,” “refugee,” “immigrant” and finally “citizen,” the wounds still run deep.
For some, these wounds manifested as silence, denial that the war ever happened, and a struggle to assimilate totally into their new environment. For others, it created an opposite motivation, one of action and protest against not only the suffering that they and their families endured during and after the war, but also the injustices still faced by Vietnamese today.
Several different issues must be taken into consideration for a better understanding of the mechanism of this confrontation. While the protest, especially the way it happened, can be seen as bad from some people’s eyes, it does not necessarily look that way to some others from a different “culture” or “set of values.” While human beings are prone to the practice of imposing their own set of values as the standard, we should restrain ourselves from adopting the preconception that one side is right or wrong.
However, stuck between these two polar opposites is the second-generation Vietnamese American. While we are all struggling to find our identity and that elusive culture of Vietnam, we have been taught that to develop an accurate depiction, we must contend with all sides of the argument. I feel confused, frustrated, manipulated, torn — but at least I don’t feel apathetic anymore. I will no longer be a passive observer of the culture and politics of Vietnam and Vietnamese America.
Cecilia Ong is a sophomore in Davenport College. She is the president of the Vietnamese Students’ Association.